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Characters Don’t Live in a Vacuum

August 17, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 3, 2014

Unless you’ve crafted your story’s setting to be a vast emptiness, your characters, like real people, do not live in vacuums.

We don’t live in black voids of nothingness absent contact with other people and things.

No, even though we may sometimes wish for five minutes without interruptions by others, we live social lives. And even if we found ourselves alone in a cave or on the summit of a mountain, even there we have the ground beneath us and the starry sky above.

We are not alone. We use items in the physical world and we interact with people.

There are rivers, rocks, roads. We see flocks of birds and contrails from planes. We hear insect songs and horns and music.

We carry on our lives in a world filled with stuff—some appealing, some noxious, some sweet, some threatening. But we live among things and people and creatures.

Your characters also live in a world of stuff. And readers need to see characters reacting to the physical realities of their worlds, see them responding to the people who share their towns and diners and roadways, their workplaces and homes, their schools and playgrounds.

I’ve read many manuscripts where the main characters are the only people in a supposedly thriving city or high-rise or office building. Where they hustle through their adventures without coming into contact with any character not directly related to the main plot. Or they walk through the setting without touching the ground or driving cars or seeing anything farther than two or three beyond their bodies. Where they ride the subway without noticing a single other person—not the teens necking two seats over or the mom hushing her screaming infant or the guy in the back corner so into his book that he doesn’t notice a bratty kid purposely dripping ice cream on his suit jacket.

Characters do not live in vacuums. And unless you’re purposely creating the kind of world TV soap operas often portrayed—characters only caught up in emergencies; no one cooking or watching TV or playing games or even listening to music; drama, drama, drama every moment with no interaction with ordinary people—your characters should live in a full world.

But before you get carried away and decide to include every object and person of your character’s environment, let me say that you don’t have to show everything and you don’t have to spend a lot of time showing the reader filler and junk; don’t go overboard in the other direction. But do give your characters a full world in which to live and play.

Senses

Characters should notice something about their worlds. They may trip over an uneven sidewalk or toys on the stairs. They may almost hit another car as they rush from a parking lot. They may have to bang on the apartment or dorm wall to quiet down the party next door.

This is where you get to show us your characters’ senses at work.

Does your viewpoint character notice scents? Share some of those noticing moments with the reader. Is she allergic to perfume? Show what it does to her. Does noise give a man migraines? Show him having to put up with an ungodly racket.

Does the MC work in the city and walk the streets daily? Give us a sense of the sounds and odors and crowds. Show us the differences between the streets during working hours and early evening and then show us what the area is like late at night. Or maybe contrast weekdays with weekends.

What of that vendor on the northwest corner of the street as a character leaves his office to walk to the subway? What does the vendor sell? Can we smell it? Does the character have to weave around the crowd if he passes at a certain time? Can he get in a few minutes of chat with the vendor if he passes by only 30 minutes later?

What about sounds in an office? Can the reader tell that hundreds of men and women work there? Is it unbearably noisy first thing in the day? (Or maybe the noise is exciting.) Is it nearly silent after lunch? Does the floor vibrate when everyone heads out between 4:40 and 4:50? Does the viewpoint character have to wait 20 minutes or more for an elevator? Does he choose to walk down fifteen flights for that very reason?

Are buildings bright or dark, maybe not murky but hazy with bad lighting? Do characters have to hurry through smoking zones right outside the doors?

Do offices ring with phone calls or maybe hum with buzzing sounds? Do keyboards clack? Is a character’s desk too close to the old copier that shudders as it spits out pages?

What about the conditions of a home? Does a character, maybe not even the viewpoint character but someone else, notice that something on the grill smells charred? notice the baby’s dirty diaper? notice the sour odor of cat pee?

Does anyone notice the annoying chirps of a baby’s game or a dog’s chew toy? What of the rumble of the train on the nearby tracks? Is the slight shaking of the bed with the passing of the 10 p.m. train a nuisance or a comfort?

Whatever objects belong in your story worlds, remember to write them in and then show characters responding to them, interacting with them. Make characters use objects and tools, the stuff and junk of their worlds. Make characters notice the physical and make them put objects to use.

Some people notice scents more than sounds or sights more than scents. What would, what should, your characters notice? If someone has a good nose, help us see the nose in action. You don’t need to make a big deal about every scent or odor, but if a woman enjoys good perfumes (or wine or freshly baked chocolate chip cookies), show her noticing the smells she likes as well as the ones that annoy her.

She might ask another woman what perfume she’s wearing. At another time she may have to hold a tissue to her nose to block the smell of something nasty. Still another time you may just have her spritzing perfume on her wrist or on a piece of lingerie that she then tucks into her husband’s packed bag.

In this way you have her noticing her world—you have readers noticing her world—but at the same time you’re not repeating the same reactions to that world. You’re making a character real, giving her a trait that plays into the physical world she inhabits. You are blending story elements so that they appear seamless, as one unit, not using them as unrelated add-ons—Oh, I haven’t used the sense of smell yet, so let me have Olivia smell the dirty socks under the bed.

I notice sounds and odors much more than visuals, so I see objects without paying attention to them unless they’re unusual in some way; visuals tend to be background for me. But sounds catch my attention. I want to know what I’m hearing and why. And sounds at the wrong time can irritate in a way that what I see doesn’t—what I see doesn’t make an impact. It’s what I hear that has me looking around or checking outside in the yard at night. (Large raccoons getting into a bird feeder have a distinct sound.)

People

What of noticing other people? While you don’t have to bring background characters into the spotlight and give them a name and dialogue or a starring role, do put them to work. Make major characters have to exert effort to move or work around them, or have characters distracted by them, or simply make major or viewpoint characters notice something about background characters that they should and/or would notice.

Main characters don’t even have to engage background characters, although they could. They could say thank you to a parking attendant or waiter or the guy holding the door open. But they don’t have to speak to them for background characters to be useful. One character might notice an attractive stranger across a room, without there being any need for interaction. Or you could use the familiarity of a background character—looks, style of walk, manner of speaking—to stir memories in the viewpoint character.

There are hundreds of ways you can show characters noticing or being influenced by background characters without making a big deal out of the noticing; the background characters remain in the background, where they should stay. But their presence helps make that background a realistic one.

Still, even without much interaction, characters should be noticing others in their world.

While most of us are oblivious to something, nobody is oblivious to everything. (Exceptions for characters or people with certain disabilities, of course. And my apologies if I gave you a Sara Lee earworm.)

Let your characters notice their world and react to it without giving us too much fluff and filler at the same time. Show us, through character action and character interaction, that characters have to deal with things and people during their waking hours. Make characters and their problems as genuine as people and problems in your world.

Definitely put breathing and annoying people inside your stories. And set them into motion. Make the world authentic. Full. Rich. Dense with both possibility and reality.

Give readers enough beyond the actions and dialogue of the main characters that they can gain a sense of the feel of a scene, an accurate picture of the setting.

Fill in the gaps of your fictional landscape.

Do away with the echoing void.

Weather

And don’t forget the weather. While you don’t usually want to start out with a description of the weather at the beginning of a piece of fiction, don’t ignore it completely.

Is it the rainy season? Show the umbrellas and the messy floors and the soggy shoes.

Is it winter? Show it taking forever to get kids dressed for trudging to school through sleet and slush. Show the kids complaining that they have to go to school when they’d rather be sledding. Show teens skipping school to go sledding and then getting into trouble and then being unable to reach help.

Does the sun shine every day? Is it overcast every hour your characters are awake? Are they enjoying an early fall? a late spring? an Indian summer? Show the weather conditions through character actions—turning on windshield wipers, grabbing a sweater, slipping on sleet.

Show the weather conditions through a character’s emotional response to the weather if that’s applicable. Some people grow depressed in the dark winters; some break out in song at the first sign of spring.

Driving through long shadows on a sunny winter evening is different from driving through bright sunshine at the same time of day six months later. Show that in your character’s behavior.

Huddling together trying to walk home through a nor’easter is much different from skipping down the street through a summer thundershower. Show what weather and weather changes make characters do and feel.

You don’t have to write that a character looks up at the sky and notices the weather, although you could. Simply use weather to influence a character’s actions. When you do, readers get a sense of what’s happening in the story world, what it feels like and what it looks like—the way it moves and influences your characters. The fictional world is no longer an empty, echoing landscape on which one or two characters play out their adventure, but a full world.

A full story, a believable one, is one where more goes on than simply a character or two caught up in their squabbles and differences. A full story world brings truth to fiction, making it seem probable, maybe even inevitable.

Do away with fictional vacuums and give readers rich and layered worlds where surprises hide in every nook and cranny. Where they wait for readers up on that mountain summit, in that cave, or in the crowded office.

Give readers a complete and complex story world.

***

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10 Responses to “Characters Don’t Live in a Vacuum”

  1. Good guidelines. But it is also important to remember not to over-describe, or to talk down to the reader by including information that can be gleaned from the context.

  2. Logan Grey says:

    I just had a beta reader tell me that they couldn’t get a good sense of my world. I obviously didn’t do the things you’re describing in this post well enough. Thank you for the post. It was informative but also inspired me to sit down today and write something.

  3. Loved this post. Though I have written corrects in a void (for a purpose, of course), this has made me revise my current WIP to make sure that the characters are interacting with others and not all alone in the world.

    • Elyzabeth, it’s easy to forget about other people and things when you’ve got to get your main characters through their dramas and traumas, but when characters never notice other people and objects, never trip over them or have to work around them—never even talk to others, even though a setting should include people—that gets weird. As Yvonne pointed out a couple of comments back, you don’t want to overdo, but you do want to do.

      I wish you success with the WIP.

  4. Amanda Stone says:

    I love this post! I will definitely look through my novel for ways to implement some suggestions here, and I will send a link to the author who I am editing for, since I’ve made some similar suggestions to him as well. I think this will be a great reference for him. Thanks for posting!

  5. I’m glad you found it useful, Amanda. Both for yourself and another writer.

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